Few will notice “When a Man Falls in the Forest,” so derivative and flaccid are its art-film tropes about loneliness and ennui. Though exec producer Sharon Stone is quite good as a wife mired in misery, most auds will feel the same way. Sophomore effort from bright young “Madness and Genius” helmer-scribe Ryan Eslinger is unlikely to make much of a sound theatrically, with fest play and offshore sales a more likely way through the woods.
In an unnamed city, a handful of lives overlap. The night shift of tightly wrapped office custodian Bill (Dylan Baker) puts him in contact with Gary (Timothy Hutton), apparently a lawyer of some sort who has a habit of falling asleep at his desk until well into the evening.
While Bill is terrified of the world, Gary exudes a cheerfulness that seems hollow and distracted. So excited is he to discover the janitor’s an old classmate, Gary promptly calls another school chum, Travis (Pruitt Taylor Vince), whom he hasn’t seen in the four years that have elapsed since a hinted-at traffic tragedy stopped his life cold.
Meanwhile, Gary’s watery-eyed white-collar wife Karen (Stone) gazes enviously at younger, happier couples and finds some solace in regular bouts of shoplifting. No wonder Gary snoozes at his desk, as their few conversations, whether in their sterile kitchen or a chance supermarket aisle encounter, suggest a union past the point of salvage. Even their college-age son, Will (David Williams), seems an afterthought.
For his part, Bill keeps busy playing a self-help tape he found while compulsively rearranging the cassette collection at his local library. The soothing female voice encourages him to embrace the newfound fantasies of “lucid dreaming,” a (real-life) technique he eventually brings to bear on his battered single-mother neighbor, Sadie (Stacie Bono), with startling results.
When one of this sad quartet brings about his own fall, influence on the others dictates their paths forward.
This brand of urban angst, peppered with sinister eccentricity, has been the meat and potatoes of precocious Amerindie cinema for so long now that nothing here seems startling, or even fresh. What might have come across as profound on the page plays onscreen as empty pretension. If Eslinger’s point is that most of these lost souls talk a lot but don’t actually say very much or even functionally communicate, that point’s success comes at the expense of originality that rendered helmer’s confident debut a genuine eye-opener.
Acting chops are split down the middle. Baker’s broad perf is undone by ill-advised mugging, while Hutton, who plays the first half-hour in a baseball cap he seldom doffs after that, never seems to settle comfortably into Gary’s midlife crisis despite a show-stopping monologue of “I’ll do better” cliches he delivers into Karen’s answering machine. Far better are Stone’s deep well of quiet anguish and the always-dependable Vince’s stock-in-trade evocation of nice-guy melancholia.
Tech credits are crisp on Vancouver-area locations. Three tunes written and sung by former Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan and some operatic passages are scattered throughout. A thicket of additional executive producers are buried in closing credits.